Quick Service Technology Is Born Again
New-wave quick service technology integrators attack the fast food market with a just-in-time philosophy, open architecture, and ultra-graphic interfaces.
Where anyone else sees only kids flipping burgers and filling french fry orders in the Cape Girardeau, MO, McDonald's, Craig Tengler sees an efficient JIT (just-in-time) production and delivery system in action. It's with this perspective that Tengler, chief marketing officer at software developer and integrator EXIT41 (Andover, MA), is approaching the quick service restaurant industry. As he and the new breed of quick service VARs and integrators he represents penetrate the market, the way technology is used to best operate and manage fast food businesses is changing.
Technology solution providers shouldn't view quick service restaurants as hamburger stands. From the front of the house to the back office, modern fast food franchises are demanding technology partners who offer solutions rooted in gaining efficiency. "Quick service restaurant owners pay for value," explains Tengler. "They'll buy a $15,000 beverage machine if it gets cars through the drive-thru faster. So it goes with their POS [point of sale] technology purchases. They'll buy new hardware or software if it adds value."
Graphic, Color Applications Still Sell
The point of sale is no doubt one area where quick service restaurateurs are spending technology dollars to gain efficiency. Money spent on POS hardware and software that helps shave a second or two off order entry time is money well spent. EXIT41's touch screen order-entry software, for example, leverages the use of color and imagery to increase order input efficiency. Each step of a transaction, from the addition of condiments to the exchange of tender, is accompanied by a color graphic (e.g. cheese is represented by a cheese icon). "Look at 95% of the quick service POS screens out there, and you'll see black or blue screens with little square boxes full of text," challenges Tengler. True, much of the quick service market is still running monitors with 1980s vintage displays (i.e. not using touch screen technology, let alone pickle graphics). With the top three quick service hamburger restaurants alone operating nearly 25,000 stores across the country, there appears to be plenty of room for VARs and integrators to spread a little more color and speed at the POS.
A Smart Kitchen System Complements The POS
The POS-to-kitchen communication link is as integral a part of an efficient JIT production system as the POS station itself. EXIT41's software connects the cashier to the cook via the Logic Net Kitchen Display System from Logic Controls (New Hyde Park, NY). The POS software and Logic Net work in concert to deliver the right information, at the right time, to the right employee. The software determines what order information should be displayed on which kitchen and assembly monitors, and Logic Net provides the open systems networking flexibility to get it to each location and display it coherently. For instance, let's say a cashier enters an order for a burger, fries, and a drink at the point of sale. The software balances the workload, and Logic Net networks the burger order to one cook's display, the fry order to another cook's display, and the entire order to an order assembler's display. The assembler fills the drink order and completes the rest of the tray when the food is ready. Simple enough, but this can get tricky in areas with culturally diverse labor pools, where it's not uncommon to find Spanish, English, and Chinese line cooks working side by side. Both EXIT41's software and the Logic Net Kitchen Display System support multiple language character sets, allowing each employee to read orders in his or her native language. "Our software drives that, and Logic Net allows us to display it," says Tengler.
Tengler knows a production line can't operate efficiently unless final assembly and delivery are considered critical parts of the process. How information is presented in the kitchen and to order assembly staff plays a crucial role in the quick delivery of finished products. "We call our POS-to-kitchen networking approach 'dynamic routing,'" Tengler says. "All orders are not equal. We look at items within the orders and load balance them across the preparation lines. This increases the efficiency of the kitchen and assembly staff by balancing the workloads of individuals." With the Logic Net Kitchen Display System, each cook is assigned a color that corresponds to a color on the kitchen display screen and the register the order came from. Each cook is responsible for preparing the order that appears under his or her color. Proving this increases order fulfillment speed in a sales demonstration is a focus area at EXIT41.
Your Customer's Future Is In Open Architecture
EXIT41 is a company looking to "improve, not simply upgrade," its customers' businesses. "The market is challenged by technology providers who simply try to append new technologies to old platforms," Tengler reasons. As applications grow richer and more complex, restaurant owners running on old platforms are increasingly faced with downtime due to system failures. Downtime is an enemy of quick service operators and their front line staff. Open architecture systems, like the Java-based platform created by EXIT41, support today's hearty applications and are an end user's best option for the reliability needed to support those of tomorrow. Fortunately for VARs selling open architecture systems, the migration of quick service software from DOS to Windows to Windows 98 has happened, for the most part, on legacy systems that aren't easily adapted to new technologies. This leaves the market wide open for open systems integrators. "That's the benefit of coming into this market right now with a Java application. When you append new technologies to an open system, it doesn't create problems," he says. "Transponders, credit, wireless, you name it - the software platform is designed to support it."
Open Systems Optimize The Back Office, Too
Java lends itself to Web-based applications, and applying business operations to the Web helps both VAR and client on many fronts. Value-seeking fast food restaurateurs enjoy decreased travel time and expense when individual store sales, labor, and inventory information is available via an Internet browser. "One of our first Wendy's installations was with a veteran owner/operator of 75 stores," Tengler recalls. Managers from each store called sales, labor, and deposit information in to a recording twice per day, seven days per week. A pool of data entry clerks listened to the recordings the following day and entered the figures into a spreadsheet, which was sent to the controller. The controller analyzed and consolidated the numbers, generated a report, and gave it to the CFO. The CFO looked for red flags, then communicated any issues to the COO, generally via cell phone, because the COO regularly spent his time traveling among three states, six days per week, dealing with such issues.
Today, any one of those C-level executives can simply tap into a store's performance data via EXIT41's Web browser-based back office. Real-time reports are available at the click of a button. The "issues" that previously took a week to identify and address are now dealt with instantly, or avoided altogether. "This owner now simply trains his district managers to manage stores over the Internet," Tengler says.
From the VAR's perspective, Web-based applications allow VARs to access system performance data online. "When a store manager has a device or software issue, we'll get a call from them, and at that point, all we know is that something isn't working properly," says Tengler. "We can go in remotely via the Web and access log files, which give us a very clear idea of what's going on and how to fix it." The ability to make fixes and upgrades from its home office saves the VAR or integrator travel and labor expenses while minimizing the customer's downtime. This service complements the project management, installation, and, when necessary, traditional on-site services that EXIT41 offers.
To Help Your Customer, Try Being Your Customer
It might sound trite, but putting yourself in your customer's shoes is still a great way to get into his head and understand his pain points. In an effort to refine its JIT approach to quick service restaurant management, EXIT41 took this idea a step further and put itself in its customers' entire uniforms. Tengler, along with several other EXIT41 employees, covertly worked in various capacities in McDonald's stores (with the permission of store management, of course) to gain firsthand knowledge of their customer's core business processes. "This was fun, until I had a teenage girl scold me for mishandling french fries," Tengler admits. Rather than walk an order of fries from the frying area to the delivery counter, Tengler took the customer's tray to the fry area, loaded it up, and returned it to the counter. "I was told very clearly by an 18-year-old girl that operationally, this was not the most efficient way to fill an order," he quips. Seems a little hands-on experience with the people on the front lines can teach even the experts a thing or two.